The lights of the Denver Theater dimmed as the players took the stage, performing Shakespeares "Taming of the Shrew." It was billed as a lighthearted comedy, but Avery Reynolds was not really in the mood for humor. He slumped down in his balcony seat, letting his mind wander. A large man, Avery stood over six feet tall, and could only be described as burly. He took pride in being a self-made man, amassing a huge fortune in cattle, lumber and shipped goods. Indeed, he was one of the wealthiest men in Colorado, but that fact gave him no joy. The actress playing Bianca stepped on stage, her blonde hair gleaming in the stagelight. As he watched, his thoughts returned to Lowilla. In spite of all his strength, all his wealth, he had been unable to protect her. Now, he didnt even know what happened to her. As the play went on, a plan began to develop, one which Avery hoped would bring him the answers he so desperately needed.
Four months later, the sun was beginning to set on the town of Four Corners. About two miles north of town, a carriage came to a stop. A lone figure emerged, and started running toward town. A new play had begun, and to set the stage clothes were torn and dirt was thrown on the face and hair. Everything had to look perfect.
+ + + + + + +
Vin Tanner twisted the socks hed washed, squeezed the water out, and hung them to dry on a flimsy clothesline. His dinner, a small rabbit hed shot earlier that day, sizzled over a small campfire. He planned to go into town the next morning, so he decided to wash out some clothes first. It had been a few days since his last visit. Vin liked his friends, the other men of The Seven, but he also liked his solitude. He had been alone for so much of his life, and he didnt want to forget how to get by on his own. Spending time out here kept him sharp. He was attuned to every sound: the crackling campfire, the locusts song, and the rustle of the prairie grass. Should anything, or anyone, come near he would know in an instant, and spring into action. His trusty Mares Leg, a sawed off Winchester, was ready by his side. The grass rustled with the sound of a confused animal heading his way. Vin turned sharply, his right hand on the Mares Leg, and crouched low. The sun was setting, but it was not dark yet. A shadowy figure emerged from the prairie grass.
Vin blinked at the sight before him. A woman, badly out of breath, stumbled forward. "Hello?" she called out, "is someone here?" Vin started to speak, but no sound came out. He finally stood and stepped forward. The woman shrank back timidly.
"Dont worry," he finally managed, "I wont hurt you." He looked her over. She was wearing a blue dress, which was once very fashionable, with ruffles around the skirt, a form fitting bodice, long sleeves and a high collar. Unfortunately the dress was torn and dirty; not that it mattered to Vin. He was mesmerized by her face, framed with chestnut brown hair. Her skin was so pale, her high cheekbones flushed from running. Her eyes were the deepest brown hed ever seen. He finally stammered, "Are you alright?"
"Yes, I I think so. Could I sit by your fire?" The prairie can get very cold at night, and she was already shivering. "Oh, sure," he replied, holding out his hand. She reached out, wrapping her fingers around his palm. Her hand seemed so small and delicate next to his. He guided her to the fire, and she knelt beside it. "Uh, you hungry?"
She cleared her throat. "Actually, Im a bit thirsty." Vin reached for his canteen, unscrewed the lid, and handed it to her. She handled it awkwardly, spilling a bit of water on her dress. She blushed, and handed the canteen back to Vin. He still couldnt believe this was happening. Most of his comrades had never been out here, and all of a sudden this woman a most beautiful woman appears out of nowhere. He finally asked, "What are you doing out here?"
"Thats a long story." She sighed, and continued. "About five years ago, I came to this place. A town called Four Corners. Have you heard of it?" Vin nodded. "I came out here with my family. I was only here for a few weeks, when I was kidnapped by Indians! Right out of my home! Its taken me all this time to escape and come back."
Vin didnt quite know what to think. Kidnapped by Indians? "What Indians?" he finally blurted out. She looked up in surprise. "Why, the Commanches. " Vin nodded. The Commanches have been known to steal women. Still, it was hard to believe. But when Vin looked at her, he forgot all questions except one. "Whats your name?"
She looked up and smiled. "Lowilla. Lowilla Reynolds." The sound of her voice was like the most beautiful music hed ever heard. "Whats your name?" she asked.
"Well, Mr. Tanner, you should probably eat your dinner before it burns up." Vin looked up with a start, and jumped to pull the spit from the flame. He examined the rabbit. "Looks done," he said. "You want some? Theres plenty."
"Well, maybe a little." Lowilla watched as Vin laid the rabbit on a flat stone, and cut off a piece. He was suddenly very embarrassed. No plates or napkins. Of course, after having been with the Commanches for five years, she was probably used to this, but somehow he believed otherwise. "Careful, its hot," he said, handing her the meat. Lowilla smiled, and took the meat carefully. She took a small bite, watching Vin as she ate. He wasnt used to being watched so intently. It occurred to him that he hadnt shaved in several days. He ran his hand over the stubble.
Lowilla giggled, then ran her hand through her long hair. "I must look a fright to you."
Vin shook his head. "Actually, you look fine, considering all youve been through."
"Thank you." She looked at the fire for a minute, then continued. "So, do you know of the town Four Corners?"
"Yeah. Ill take you there in the morning." Vin stopped to think about what he just said. In the morning? Why did he say that? He looked at Lowilla, and knew why. Her face was radiant in the moonlight. She touched his arm, and he felt weak inside. He was drawn to her, and she knew it. She leaned toward him, her mouth getting closer to his. "Morning will be just fine," she whispered, and brushed her lips against his. He slid his arms around her, and pulled her close into a deep kiss. Yes, morning will be just fine.
+ + + + + + +
The morning sun was burning brightly in the sky, and Vin thought it was the most beautiful morning hed ever seen. Of course, his companion had a lot to do with that. Lowilla sat in front of Vin, tucked safely between his arms. Shed been embarrassed about riding the horse "like a man," so she sat in a more ladylike side saddle position. However, as they approached the outskirts of town Lowilla began to feel uncomfortable. She looked at Vin, wanting to say something, but she couldnt think of the words to use. People on the street were turning in amazement at the sight of an unknown woman riding with Vin Tanner. Vin was beginning to feel some apprehension himself.
"Vin, theres something I have to tell you. Something I should have said last night." She looked down, took a deep breath, and said, "Im married." She looked up at Vin, who looked like hed just been hit in the stomach. "Im so sorry, Vin," she said, fighting back tears. "I know I owe you an explanation."
"Yeah, Id say so." Vin had slowed the horse to a slow walk. Lowilla sighed and continued.
"I hadnt been married for very long, just a few months. I already knew Id made a mistake. I dont really want to go back to him. I knew that before I ran across you. I just want to see my father again. His name is Avery Reynolds, and hes in Denver."
"And your husband?"
"Keith Cartright. I dont know if he still lives here, though."
Vin knew the answer. "He does." Vin remembered hearing the story about how Mr. Cartright had lost his young bride some years ago, and he could kick himself for not making the connection earlier. "I suppose well have to contact him anyway, and your father." The horse turned up a street, and headed towards the sheriffs office. He could see Buck and J.D. standing near the hitching post, and Ezra sitting in a chair under the canopy. J.D. was trying to twirl his gun on his finger, a trick he hadnt quite mastered.
"I do hope youve removed the bullets," quipped Ezra. The gun flopped clumsily on J.D.s finger. He started to say something, but instead dropped his gun at the sight of Vin and his companion. He pulled his hat off, and bent to retrieve his gun. Buck had also come to attention.
"Well, looks like Vins made a new acquaintance." Buck stepped forward to offer some assistance. Vin slid off the horse, and helped Lowilla down. He handed Buck the reins.
"Wheres Chris?" he asked curtly.
"In there," Buck replied, motioning to the office. "Arent you going to introduce us?" Vin didnt answer, instead he walked quickly into the office. "I guess not." Buck tossed the reins over the hitching post, and said, "my name is Buck Wilmington, and this is J.D. Dunne. What might your name be?"
"Im Lowilla Cartright."
"Cartright?" Ezra mumbled, recognizing the name. He hung back, eyeing her suspiciously. About that time, Chris stepped out on the porch with Vin. Chris continued down the steps, glancing at her torn dress and dirty face. No amount of dirt could hide her beauty, which seemed to have Buck and J.D. captivated. But Chris had buried such feelings years ago. As he stepped in front of her, Lowilla wondered if she could really go through with this.
"So," Chris began, "you say youre Lowilla Cartright?"
"Yes," she responded timidly.
"And you have returned here, after being kidnapped five years ago?"
Chris nodded, but he was clearly unconvinced. "Five years, thats a long time. Dont know if theres many people still around from back then, who knew you."
"Well," she said, "you can contact my father in Denver."
"I see." Chris glanced at Vin, who was leaning in the doorway. "But your husbands a lot closer. J.D," he called over his shoulder, "go out to Cartrights place and bring him here." J.D. didnt move, instead looked at Chris in protest. Chris shook his head and added, "he might want to know his wifes here." J.D. took off, grumbling under his breath about always being the one to go fetch things. Chris looked back at Lowilla. "Why dont you wait inside," he said, motioning towards the office. "I need to go talk to some people, then Ill be right back."
Lowilla nodded and started up the steps. Just then Ezra stepped forward. "Forgive my rudeness in not introducing myself. Ezra Standish, at your service." He took her hand and brought it to his lips, something that Vin didnt much care for. Lowilla blushed and curtsied, then turned for the office door. Her face paled when she saw Vin. He said nothing, but bounded down the steps, snatched the horses reins, and headed to the livery stable.
"Well," said Buck, watching Vin depart, "guess Ill need to keep her company." He trotted in the office after Lowilla. Chris started to leave, but Ezra caught his arm.
"The torn dress is a nice touch." Ezra leaned closer and continued, "But the nails are perfectly manicured, and theres no calluses on the fingers."
"Something you trying to tell me?"
Ezra smiled. "I have heard the story of Mrs. Cartrights disappearance. There are those in town who have their doubts about Mr. Cartrights story. Especially since his young bride was due to inherit a substantial sum of money."
Chris chuckled. If it had anything to do with money, Ezra would know all about it. "Why dont you see if you can find some of those people. They could be useful. Ill be at the Clarion." Chris and Ezra went their separate ways.
As he walked down the road, Chris wondered about Vins behavior. Clearly Vin was attracted to her, which was unusual because Vin was such a levelheaded guy. He certainly wouldnt get involved with another married woman. That was something Buck would do. Chris wondered at the wisdom of leaving her with Buck. He also wondered about the dress. Although it was torn in spots, it really didnt look all that bad. If she had been kidnapped by Commanches, they would surely have given her different clothes, since silk wouldnt last any time out in Commanche territory.
He arrived at the Clarion News, and stepped in. Apparently Mary had already heard about Lowillas arrival. She was searching through files and copies of old newspapers. "I see youve already heard," said Chris.
Mary glanced up. "I ran into J.D. as he was heading out of town." She returned to her search, and added, "I really cant believe this is happening."
"Neither can I." Chris looked over her shoulder at the newspaper. "Were you here when this happened?"
"Yes," she said slowly, "but to be honest, I never met her. She didnt come down from Denver til their house was finished, and she disappeared a few weeks later." She handed Chris the article. "I never really had the opportunity."
Chris read the article carefully. It said that Keith Cartright reported his wife was kidnapped from their home by renegade Indians. Mr. Cartright described what she was wearing as a blue silk dress, with ruffles and a high collar. The townspeople searched for weeks, but never found her. Two Commanches were arrested by the posse, but they claimed to know nothing about it, and were later released. He noticed Lowilla was twenty years old at the time.
"Did you ever hear about her coming into an inheritance?"
Mary nodded. "Ill have to look for our notes, but yes, it seems there was a trust fund set up by her father."
"Id appreciate those notes, if you can find them." Chris smiled at Mary. They had gotten off to a bad start when he first came to town, but they have since developed a mutual respect for each other. They had something in common, being that both were widowed, and they both reacted to this in the same way. Neither would court anyone. He had his job as the unofficial sheriff, and she ran the newspaper. Their work was a handy excuse, but truthfully, neither wanted to experience the pain of losing someone again. Chris put that line of thought to rest, and asked one last question. "Did you ever hear any talk that maybe Mr. Cartright wasnt being truthful?"
"Well, you know people will talk." Mary considered her next statement carefully. "Some people seemed to think he wasnt all that upset about her disappearance. Of course, that was nothing I could print in the paper."
"Of course," answered Chris. "Was the house ever searched?"
"I think so. But again, nothing was found." Mary walked over to another cabinet
and began searching through its contents. "This could take some time, Chris. Come back in a few hours, I should have something by then."
Chris tipped his hat. "Good day, then."
+ + + + + + +
Vin left his horse at the livery, and went to the nearest saloon. He saw his friend Josiah sitting at a table by himself, playing solitaire. Vin grabbed a bottle from the bar and plopped in a chair next to Josiah.
"Bit early for drinkin, isnt it?" Josiah scarcely looked up from the cards. Vin said nothing. He poured a shot from the bottle and downed it quickly, then poured another. This piqued Josiahs interest. He poured himself a shot, then asked, "Something on your mind?"
"Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned."
"Who hasnt." Josiah forgot about his card game, letting some of the cards fall to the floor. He looked intently at Vin. "I dont really see guilt on your face, its more like anger."
"Hmp." Vin shook his head. "Itd be anger."
"Yep." Vin took a drink, and stared into his shot glass. "I may have slept with a married woman." Josiahs eyebrows shot up. Vin finished his drink, and added, "or maybe shes lying, I dont know. She says shes Lowilla Cartright."
"Is that a fact?" Josiah shifted in his chair. "Seems Ive heard of her. Do you believe her?"
"I dont know." Vin tapped the table nervously. "Should have trusted my instincts. Her story just didnt make sense, but I guess I wanted to believe her." He reached for the bottle. "Now I feel like a blamed idiot." He started to pour another drink, but Josiah held out his hand, stopping him.
"And did she mention her marital status before?"
Josiah withdrew his hand. "Then I dont see why you should feel guilty about what happened. As for the rest, well know when her husband gets here."
"Yeah, we will." Vin put the bottle down and stood up. "Guess Ill go back to the sheriffs office." He tossed a coin on the bar and walked out of the saloon. Josiah watched him leave, then looked at his messed up cards. "Oh, well," he mumbled, "guess its not to early for drinkin." He drank his shot, gathered his cards, and left.
Vin arrived at the sheriffs office at the same time Chris did. Vin glanced at Chris, then looked down, his face flushed from the whiskey. Chris decided not to ask. Buck and Lowilla were having a lively conversation, with laughter ringing in the air. They grew quiet when Chris entered the room. He went to his desk, and pulled some paper from a drawer. Vin stayed near the door, trying not to look at Lowilla.
"So, Mrs. Cartright," began Chris, "you say you want to contact your father?"
"Yes, thats right." She gave Chris the address in Denver. "What are you going to tell him?"
"That youre in town, and would like to see him." Chris looked at her, and added, "Are you sure about this address?"
Lowilla stammered, "Well, yes, hes always been there."
Chris nodded, and continued writing. Vin heard a horse outside the door, and saw J.D. dismount. He walked in hurriedly, removed his hat and shook the dust from it. "Wheres Mr. Cartright?" asked Chris.
"Oh, hes coming." J.D. nodded at Lowilla, then continued, "He wasnt going to at first. He said it was impossible. But I told him he had to identify her." J.D. sat in the only available chair.
Vin looked out the door, and saw Keith Cartright approaching on horseback. He grimaced, then looked briefly at Lowilla and backed away from the door. All eyes were on Keith as he entered. Lowilla stood up and stepped toward Keith, breathing slightly harder than before. Keiths eyes examined her fully, traveling down to the torn ruffles and back up to her face. Finally he laughed quietly. "This is not my wife. Shes an imposter."
"Youre lying!" shouted Lowilla.
"Oh, really." Keith shook his head. "Its amazing that you would show up exactly one week before Lowillas 25th birthday." He turned to Chris, and said," Shes obviously after the trust fund."
"And youre not?" Lowilla asked accusingly. "You want that money yourself. Thats the only reason you married me in the first place. Well, you wont get it."
Keith laughed again. "You must have read the newspaper. My wife was last seen wearing a blue silk dress, similar to that one. Tell me, what happened to the necklace."
"Necklace?" she asked.
"Yes, I gave it to you when you arrived from Denver." Keith circled around Lowilla. "Dont you remember? The stone was your favorite color."
"Red. My favorite color is red."
"Well, you did your homework, didnt you." Keith smiled maliciously. "But Lowilla was wearing that necklace when she was abducted. So, what happened to it?"
Lowilla glanced at the floor, then back at Keith. Smiling confidently, she replied, "There was no necklace. Youre trying to trick me."
Keith burst into laughter. "You are good, Ill give you that. But yes, there was a necklace."
"Got any pictures?" asked Chris. "Of either one?"
"Unfortunately, no." Keith grew more serious. "I guess its her word against mine, then."
Lowilla stepped over to Chris. "Contact my father. Hell tell you the truth."
"Yes," said Keith, putting his hat on. "Im sure hell confirm this woman is an imposter. You might as well keep her in there," he added, pointing to the jail cells. He turned to leave, then said, "If you need anything else, you know where to find me."
The room was quiet for some time after Keith left. Vin still leaned against the door, shaking his head. J.D. was dumbfounded. Buck, however, had drawn a conclusion about Vins relationship with Lowilla. Finally Chris said, "Well, I guess you wont be staying with him. Do you have any thoughts on that?" Vin looked up, wondering the same thing.
Lowilla cleared her throat. "I should still have some money in an account at the bank."
Chris stood up, letter in hand. "Okay, lets get this to the telegraph office, and go see about that." He took Lowillas arm, and guided her towards the door. She looked at Vin as they passed, but he turned away. After they left, Vin kicked the wall.
"Aw, hell!" Vin spun around and went after them.
J.D. looked puzzled. "Whats the matter with Vin?" he asked. Buck rolled his eyes, wondering how J.D. could possibly be so naive.
There was a flurry of activity in the town. Josiah had gone to visit Nathan Jackson, to see if hed known Lowilla. Unfortunately, Nathan hadnt been in town back then, either. Ezra was having much better luck, finding an old fellow who did remember the incident, and had even participated in the search. Chris was about to run into someone else who remembered: the bank manager.
"Yes," he said, "there is an account here for Lowilla Reynolds Cartright. Her father set it up when she came down. I remember Mr. Cartright was pretty upset that he couldnt get to the money, but you see, his name was not on the account."
Chris nodded. "And do you remember meeting Lowilla?"
"Yes," the manager said hesitantly. He looked closely at Lowilla, then added, "It could be her, certainly looks like but its just been so long, I cant be sure. Not to worry, though." He pulled a card from a box. "We have her signature on file. Would you please write your name here?" He pointed to a sheet of paper. Lowilla picked up the pen, dipped it in the inkwell, and wrote Lowilla Reynolds Cartright on the paper. She handed it to the manager, who studied the signatures intently. Finally he said, "It appears to be a match."
The words tore into Vin like a bullet. Hed been hoping that she was a fraud, but now it appears that she was indeed married to Keith Cartright. He vaguely heard her ask for one hundred dollars, and ask about hotels. He didnt stay around long enough to hear which one. He just needed to get out, somewhere, away from her. He headed for the livery, hoping to saddle up and be gone before anyone could stop him.
Chris felt hed hit a blank wall. He didnt believe she was Lowilla Cartright, and signatures could be forged. But where would she get a copy of the signature? On the other hand, it appeared both Mr. and Mrs. Cartright were after the trust fund. Possibly both were lying. His only hope was that Mary had found something by now. He sent Lowilla on her way, and headed back to the Clarion.
Vin was tugging at the saddle strap, hoping he wasnt being too rough on his horse. Just another minute, and he could make his escape. He started to lead his horse out when Lowilla arrived. "Vin," she pleaded, but he cut her off.
"I dont have nothing to say to you."
"Please," she said, with tears in her eyes, "its not what you think."
"It isnt?" Vin spun around. "It looks to me that either youre married, or youre a fraud. I dont know which is worse, but I dont want no part of it."
"Yes you do!" She stepped forward and grabbed Vins arm. "You wouldnt be this upset if you didnt want me."
Vin looked up, so she couldnt see the pain in his face. "Look, what I want isnt important, is it? You should be trying to get back with your husband, if thats who he really is."
"I told you, I dont want him." She ran her fingers down his arm. "I knew that a long time ago. I just want to see my father again. And " she hesitated, then finished, "I want you. I wasnt counting on running into you. Youre kind of messing up my plans."
"And just what would those plans be?" asked Vin. "To steal someones inheritance?" She didnt answer, she just looked at Vin with those brown eyes that hed fallen so hard for. Vin sighed, and turned away. "I cant be a part of that. And I cant be with another mans wife. So, please, just do what you came to do, and let me be."
"Dont you think there could be some other explanation?" Lowilla pleaded, "Something that no ones thought of yet?"
Vin turned back angrily. "All right. What is it, then." He grabbed Lowillas shoulders. "Tell me the truth!"
Lowilla touched his hands. "If you could just give me a little more time, Ill ." Her face paled as she looked over Vins shoulder. He turned to see Keith Cartright standing in the door. Vin had never felt so much hostility come from one person as he felt from Keith. He instinctively stepped in front of Lowilla, to shield her. Keith glared at Vin, then turned and walked away.
Vin turned back to Lowilla. "All right, how much time?" he asked.
"When my father gets here," Lowilla said, taking Vins hand. "Then Ill tell you everything."
+ + + + + + +
Chris found the Clarion in even more disarray than when hed last been there. Mary must have pulled every loose note out of the cabinet, as papers were spread over her desk, the nearby table, and her bookshelf. Mary looked exhausted. "Did you find anything on the trust?" he asked.
Mary blinked and stretched her arms over her head. "Those notes on the table are on the trust. These in front of me are on the search. Pull up a chair." She stood and walked toward the stove. "Would you like some coffee?"
"Yes, thank you." Chris picked up the notes on the table and began reading. It seems that Avery Reynolds set up a trust for his daughter, in hopes that no one would marry her for the money. She wouldnt receive the trust until her 25th birthday, which Chris gathered would be in one week. Chris read aloud, "The combined total of cash, land and business interest totals $200,000.00!"
Mary set a coffee cup down. "That was five years ago. Its probably grown in value since then." Mary sat down, and continued. "Im no legal expert on trusts, but if I understand correctly, if the beneficiary does not live long enough, the trust goes to a secondary beneficiary, or reverts back into the original estate."
"But if she dies after the trust date, then her husband would inherit it, right?"
Mary nodded. "I believe so."
Chris rubbed his chin. "Then it doesnt make sense that he would kill her if he wanted the trust, unless she was threatening to leave him." He looked at Marys desk. "Any talk on her leaving him in those notes?"
"These notes are baffling." Mary picked up one piece of paper. "This was an interview with one of Lowillas friends. She said Lowilla didnt want to leave Denver." Mary shuffled through other papers. "My husband must have interviewed everyone in town. Almost no one ever saw her. Its as if Mr. Cartright tried to keep her hidden."
"Or imprisoned," added Chris.
"I suppose thats possible. The house was searched twice, Chris. No one ever found a body. But Mr. Cartright was always cooperative with the searches."
"He could have killed her some days before he reported her missing, and no one would know." Chris drank some coffee, and continued. "That would give him plenty of time to hide the body, someplace where no one would find it."
"Chris, thats just speculation. Besides, didnt we agree that he wouldnt get the trust if he killed her?"
"But he said she was kidnapped by Indians." Chris looked at Mary slyly. "That means she could still be alive on her 25th birthday."
Mary considered the statement. "Which means she would receive the trust? But how would that benefit him?"
"I dont know," Chris shrugged. "Maybe he would then have her declared dead or something. But he certainly wouldnt want someone showing up claiming to be Lowilla, now would he."
"Do you believe her?"
Chris shook his head. "No, I dont believe THAT girl spent five years in captivity. Other than that, Im not sure." Chris looked at the desk. "Anything else in there?"
"My husband took some detailed notes." Mary laughed and handed Chris one. "It seems Mr. Cartright ordered some Italian tile for his home. It was the last thing added to the house before Lowilla arrived."
"Italian tile?" Chris smiled. "The mans got expensive taste."
"One more thing," Mary added. "Theres a man named Elmer Smith whos still in town. He was part of the posse, and searched the house once. You may catch up with him at the saloon."
"Thanks." Chris put down the coffee cup. "And thanks for the coffee, too."
Ezra had already located Elmer Smith, so Chris went to find Lowilla. She had bought a new dress, and secured a room at the hotel. Once changed, she accompanied Chris to meet Elmer Smith. Unfortunately, his reaction was similar to the bank managers. "She sure looks like her, but I cant say for certain." Chris shrugged, and told Lowilla she could go. After she left, he had a few more questions for Elmer.
"Did anything about this disappearance strike you as odd?"
Elmer laughed. "Yeah, Mr. Cartright. You know, he didnt want to go out with the posse. But we needed him, as most of the townfolk hadnt seen his wife. The old sheriff pretty much made him. Seemed to me he wasnt real interested in finding her."
"You were there when the house was searched?"
"Yep." Elmer nodded. "Part of the floor was messed up, where hed gotten some of that imported tile. He said he was fixin it. Seemed he cared more about that damn house than about his wife."
"Yeah," Chris agreed, "sure seems that way. Well, thank you for your time."
Chris walked back to the sheriffs office, where he found Vin Tanner sitting on the porch, deep in thought. Vin kept thinking about what shed said, some other explanation no one had thought of. Chris walked up the steps. "Evening, Vin." Vin nodded, but didnt speak. Chris leaned against the wall. "Whats on your mind?"
Vin glanced at Chris. He wasnt sure how much to tell his friend. Of course, Chris had probably figured a few things out already. Vin shrugged, "Oh, just things."
Vin was a man of few words, so Chris decided to try a new tactic.
"I found out that trust fund of Lowillas is real valuable."
Vin sighed. "You think thats what shes after?"
"Well," Chris mused, "its possible. Signatures can be faked, you know."
Vin shook his head. "She wants us to contact her father. If she were a fraud, she wouldnt want us to contact him, would she?"
"No, I dont suppose ." Chris stopped, as a new idea came to him. Vin sat upright, with the same thought. "Unless Avery Reynolds sent her!"
Vin practically jumped down the steps, and walked quickly to the hotel where Lowilla was staying. He asked the clerk if hed seen her, and what room she was in. The clerk hadnt seen her in some time, and wasnt sure where she was. Vin bounded upstairs and knocked on her door. The door hadnt been completely closed, and popped open. Lowilla wasnt there. The curtains billowed around an open window. Vin walked to the window, and saw the back canopy was just below. As he turned to leave, he saw Keith Cartrights hat lying on the bed. A sick feeling surged through his stomach. He raced down the stairs, nearly colliding with Chris. "Shes gone," he said breathlessly. "I found Cartrights hat in the room. I think he took her."
Chris held up his hands. "Now, dont go rushing off after her. We need to get the guys together ."
"Like hell!" Vin pushed his way past Chris and took off down the street.
"Vin!" Chris yelled after him, "You know this is a set-up!" Vin didnt even slow down. Chris swore and shook his head. It just wasnt like Vin to act so foolishly. He must really have it bad for the girl. Chris was able to locate Nathan, Josiah and Buck at the saloon. J.D. was nowhere to be found. He had Ezra wait at the sheriffs office for J.D., with orders to head out to the Cartright house as soon as J.D. arrived. "Oh," shouted Chris over his shoulder, "and bring some shovels."
"Shovels?" asked Ezra.
It was already dark by the time Vin left town. The Cartright house was about two miles southeast, in a flat clearing. There would be no trees for Vin to hide behind on his approach. He stopped his horse about 200 feet from the house, and proceeded on foot. There were several large torches in front of the house, illuminating the entire approach. Even if he crawled on his belly, he would be seen, so he continued walking. Finally, he was close enough to see the porch. Lowilla appeared to be bound to the front support, a handkerchief stuffed in her mouth. When she saw him, she began to struggle against the ropes, trying to scream. The house itself was dark. Vin knew he could be shot any moment, but the sight of Lowilla bound like that made him so angry he threw all caution to the wind. Sure enough, a shot rang out. The bullet tore through Vins right arm, dropping him to his knees.
"Im aware of your reputation," Keith Cartright said mockingly, "so I thought Id disable you." Vin reached for his six-shooter with his left hand, but Keith stepped out from the shadows and held his pistol to Lowillas temple. "Why dont you leave that one out there?" Keith smiled, and continued, "but do bring that famous sawed-off gun to me." Vin dropped the six-shooter, and staggered to the porch. He saw that Lowillas hands were tied behind her back, with a few feet of rope trailing behind and being held by Keith. "You know, Im something of a marksman myself." He took the Mares Leg and examined it. "What an interesting gun," he commented as he tucked the gun under his arm, and motioned for Vin to go inside.
"Ive given this quite some thought," Keith said, "about what to do with this imposter." They wandered into the front parlor room, which had a large window looking out on the porch. The torches partially illuminated the room, reflecting off the expensive tile. He motioned for Vin to move to the other side of the room, his gun still at Lowillas head. "Then when I saw the two of you together, it came to me." He shoved Lowilla towards Vin. Vin caught her, and pulled the gag from her mouth. "I made sure people in town saw us leave together. So, Ill tell them that you burst in here and shot her in a fit of jealousy. Of course, Ill have to shoot you for self-protection."
"You cant be serious," Vin responded. "Chris wont buy that for a minute."
"Oh, Im sure your friend Chris will have his doubts," Keith smiled, "but both of you will be dead, so mine will be the only story to tell."
"What about the trust?" Lowilla said harshly. "If I die before my birthday, it will be dissolved."
Keith laughed. "You are not Lowilla. As far as I know, shes still being held captive by Indians."
"So whats your plan?" Lowilla pressed on. "You going to have her declared dead after her birthday? You know Avery wont let you have it."
Keiths eyes flashed in anger. "Legally, there wont be anything he can do. Ill have no trouble proving youre an imposter, there are other people I know who will vouch for that. Besides," he said, cocking his gun, "Ive waited five years for that money, and no tramp like you is gonna steal it from me!"
Vin lunged forward at those words, but he neednt have bothered. Chris fired through the glass window, striking Keith in the side. Buck kicked in the front door and rushed in, gun at the ready. Keiths wound was severe, so Nathan patched him up and then tended to Vin. Chris paced the tiled floor, then stood next to Keith. "Shes dead, isnt she?"
Keith was shuddering from the wound. "What difference does it make? Im not going to make it, anyway."
"You could at least tell us where she is."
Keith turned away. "Bet youve already figured it out, havent you."
Chris nodded, looking at the tile. He walked over to Vin, to see how he was doing. Nathan had removed Vins jacket and cleaned off the wound. "This bullets gonna have to come out, Vin. And I think the bone is broke."
"I think so, too," said Vin, grimacing. "Hows my jacket?"
"Well," said Nathan, "Im not so good at patching jackets." He wrapped the wound, then told Chris hed rather take care of this in town. Josiah helped Vin to his feet, and Lowilla started to follow.
"Wait a minute," said Chris, "I need to talk to you."
She began to protest, but Chris cut her off. "Itll only be a minute, then you can go with them."
She nodded, and let go of Vins hand. He started to leave, but turned suddenly and asked, "Hey, whats your real name?"
"Josie," she smiled at Vin and repeated, "Josie McCray."
"Well, Josie," started Chris, "you were sent by Mr. Reynolds, werent you."
"So, what were you hoping to accomplish?"
She smiled and began, "I personally hoped to launch a career. You see, Im an actress. Mr. Reynolds saw me in a play in Denver, and thought I looked something like his daughter. I didnt even have a speaking part, I was just an extra. Mr. Reynolds offered my five thousand dollars to come here and impersonate his daughter. He was hoping that Mr. Cartright would say or do something that would explain what happened to the real Lowilla."
Chris shook his head. "That was risky. So, you learned to forge her signature?"
"Yes," she said hesitantly, "that wasnt illegal, was it?"
Chris shrugged, "probably nothing to worry about. So, why didnt you tell us this to begin with?"
"Im an actress!" she exclaimed. "I was hired to play a part. Besides, I didnt think Vin would let me go through with it if he knew the truth."
Chris laughed. "Youre probably right about that. You can go now." She thanked him, and raced after Vin.
Buck scratched his head, looking puzzled. "But he wouldnt tell us what happened, Chris. We still dont know where the body is."
"Yes, we do," said Chris, staring at the tile. "Shes under here, somewhere."
+ + + + + + +
J.D. arrived an hour later with two shovels. Ezra, suspecting work might be involved, hadnt come along. J.D. looked at Keiths corpse, which Buck had covered with a blanket. "We gonna bury him?"
"Not right now." Chris had been examining the tile, and had found an area that wasnt level. "Did you see Vin?"
"Oh, yeah. Nathans removed the bullet and set his arm. I think hes at that ladys hotel room. What was her name again?"
"Josie," mumbled Chris. "And I will be most anxious to talk to Mr. Reynolds when he arrives."
Josiah took a shovel and began to pull up the tile. "You know, Chris," he began, "even if we find a body, well never be able to prove its her. Not after five years."
Chris nodded, but responded, "Well look anyway." They pulled away the tile, which revealed a mound under the floor. They carefully shoveled aside the dirt, until they came across a blanket. Carefully pulling the cloth aside, they found the remains of a woman, a tattered blue silk dress, and a necklace with a red stone. "The necklace," Chris exclaimed. "The necklace will identify her. We found her."
Avery Reynolds arrived four days later. He finally knew what happened to Lowilla, and could bury his daughter. Josie McCray spent that four days with Vin, taking care of him, and talking about her future acting career. She enticed him to come with her to Denver, but he declined. Avery gave her a check for five thousand dollars, good at the First Bank of Denver. "I cant thank you enough," he said. "Youre a brave woman, and you deserve every penny of this." Josie thanked him and took the check, then went to Vin one more time. "Wont you please come with me? Ive got plenty of money."
Vin shook his head. "I cant live off your money. That just wouldnt be right. Besides, I aint much of a city feller." He looked down and swallowed hard. "So, youre gonna get to be an actress, like you always wanted."
"Yes, this event should get me started." She smiled, but there was sadness in her eyes. "Vin, I wasnt acting where you were concerned."
"I know. Guess I messed up your plans."
Josie laughed at the irony. "Like I said, I wasnt counting on meeting you. Vin, I wont be gone forever. I will come back, soon. You will see me again."
"Course I will, darlin." Vin knew she really believed that, but he also knew it wouldnt happen. "Ill see you again real soon."
One month later, Vins arm had mended fine, but his heart was still broken. After much complaining, his friends had finally agreed to let him leave town, and go back to his little wagon. Back to his solitude. After all, he explained, he needed to keep sharp, and hed been cooped up in town way too long. He stoked his campfire, and placed another rabbit on a spit over the flame. The sun was going down, the breeze rustled in the grass, and the sound of locusts filled the air. But Vin put his face in his hands, wondering how he would ever survive being alone again.
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